Monday, August 14th, 2023
On Friday, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson finally delivered on a promise made during the final days of the campaign, firing Dr. Allison Arwady from her post as Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. As a Federally Qualified Health Center serving nearly 50,000 low-income patients from Chicago’s southwest side, Esperanza Health Centers today adds its voice to the chorus of others expressing their profound dismay and concern at this decision.
Public health departments play a unique and critical role in our communities. Rather than delivering individual patient care, their core function is to develop systems and policies that reduce health inequities, prevent disease, and promote better health for everyone. During emergencies, they coordinate responses that keep us safe. Year-round, they identify health concerns in our communities and collect high-quality data to effectively address them.
By all these measures and more, Dr. Arwady’s tenure at the Chicago Department of Public Health was an unequivocal success.
Under her leadership, Chicago mobilized a decisive, equity-driven response to the COVID-19 pandemic that saved lives, prioritizing and then delivering life-saving vaccines for communities with the highest rates of disease, hospitalization, and death in our state. We saw this first-hand at Esperanza, partnering with the City to deliver more than 100,000 doses in the first five months of the rollout and turning the pandemic-torn neighborhoods of Brighton Park, Gage Park, and Chicago Lawn into some of the most vaccinated in the city.
But it wasn’t just Dr. Arwady’s response to COVID that deserves recognition.
Although the conversation around mental health access for our city’s 2.7 million residents has become mired in demands to reopen 14 city-run clinics, it was Dr. Arwady who advanced an actionable, far-reaching strategy with immediate impact. Thanks to the Trauma Informed Centers of Care, of which Esperanza is also a participant, the number of residents receiving city-funded mental health services soared from 3,651 in 2019 to more than 75,000 today. While no one doubts that city clinics can play an important role in strengthening our future mental health system, there is also little question that the Department’s investments represented a critical step in expanding access across each one of Chicago’s community areas and getting care quickly to people in need.
Whether it was the Department’s swift response to the Mpox outbreak, its work around adolescent sexual health, the integration of mental health professionals into our 911 response system, or its data modernization efforts, we believe the Department of Public Health under Dr. Arwady’s leadership set an example that made our city healthier, safer, and more equitable for all.
Sadly, public health officials who do their work with integrity and independence rarely please everyone, and we saw this vividly during the pandemic as people railed loudly against vaccines, masks, business closures, school re-openings, remote learning, and other decisions informed by best public health practice.
But it is precisely for this reason that scientific rigor and courage are prerequisites to do this work. Without these, it’s impossible to build the trust that public health institutions need to be effective, particularly at a time when science – including the science of public health – is under attack from all sides. While no one believes that our public health leaders are above being challenged or questioned, when we silence or sideline expert voices because of differing political views, the very cause of public health is compromised and the wellness of our communities is harmed.
While we look forward to working with Dr. Arwady’s successor and have every confidence that the Department will be in good hands, we believe that the decision to relieve her of her post was unnecessary, ill-informed, and not in the City’s long-term public health interests.